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Getting inspired with Michael Hanson

 

A portrait of a young girl holding a sea urchin on the inner reef at low tide. Tobou, Lakeba. Photography by Michael Hanson
A portrait of a young girl holding a sea urchin on the inner reef at low tide. Tobou, Lakeba. Photograph by Michael Hanson.

There’s an immediate connection forged in a Michael Hanson image, between the viewer and the subject.  Whether it’s a gaucho in Patagonia, or a child with big dreams in the suburbs of California, you always feel as if you’re there, drawn into the moment as a participant rather than an outsider.  Michael’s versatility is on display with his award-winning work at Aurora, which spans the gamut from documentary to humorous moments caught while exploring the great outdoors in his adopted Pacific Northwest.

Click here to see a curated gallery of Michael’s images

Click here to see all of Michael’s work at Aurora

We caught up with Michael in between his travels and personal projects to ask what inspires him to tell these stories, and how he got his start.

A young boy holding a baseball bat points to the sky while standing in front of his two-story house.
A young boy holding a baseball bat points like Babe Ruth while standing in front of his two-story house, Redding, California. Photograph by Michael Hanson.

Aurora: You were a scrappy minor league baseball player in the Atlanta Braves organization and now you’re a well known documentary photographer. What inspired that change? What lessons did you learn as an athlete that have helped you your photography career?

Michael Hanson: A ‘scrappy minor league player’ is often a synonym for a ‘not-so-talented but boy, do you work hard’ player (which is pretty accurate for me, so good intro question). I hope I have a little more talent with the camera but maybe not. The transition was easy for me. Dayton Moore, the director of player development, told me I should think of my next career. That and every time I saw my batting average on the jumbo-tron, I knew the end was near. I like to think I worked hard for a decade or more to be able to compete on the field with some really good players and maybe the same can be said about photography. Both are pretty difficult industries to really make it. Luckily, I love both. I was obsessed with baseball while playing and now I seem to be consumed by photography. When I was in the minors I was exposed to a really interesting culture and it was a conscious decision to start shooting it. That’s how I started my photography career.

Au: There’s a sense of connection to the subject in all of your images, which are candid, open and honest. How are you able to immerse yourself in a culture and be accepted by people, so that the perspective you show viewers is no longer one of an outsider?

MH: Curiosity, I guess. It looks authentic because it is. It’s more fun and fulfilling if my interaction is genuine. Some photographers might be able to get good photographs without that interaction but I like the interaction as much as I like having a good set of images. And, I know the images will be better if I can get access to the subject’s lives and they don’t look at me as an outsider with a camera.

A young man holds his kalashnikov rifle while overlooking the Omo river in the Omo Valley of Ethiopia. Photograph by Michael Hanson.
A young man holds his kalashnikov rifle while overlooking the Omo river in the Omo Valley of Ethiopia. Photograph by Michael Hanson.

Au: Where do you find inspiration on a daily basis to tell your subjects’ stories?

MH: It’s hard to answer. I just don’t want to list photographers I like and magazines I read and say it’s that simple. I get inspiration from my friends, other photographers, editors, people who aren’t in the art world at all.  There are a handful of photographers I really like and are working on subjects or with certain styles that inspire me. Jonas Bendikson has always been a favorite of mine. Aurora’s own David McLain is another. And, lately Erika Larsen is a pleasure to see.  So much of the inspiration that we find comes from the people doing what they do, whether that’s teaching or starting an urban farm or whatever it is they do. That’s the inspiration, and we just have to figure out how to tell it simply and not let production get in the way of the story. When I’m shooting in a remote location, there’s not a ton of room for inspiration. The subject is doing what they do, with or without me there, and if I set myself up correctly with good light and don’t drop the camera, all I have to do is figure out how to make a clean frame that accurately describes the subject. Of course, my research has given me an idea of what to expect in that situation.

Part of the inspiration comes from the fear of failure. I like being a photographer and I want to keep being one. I want to tell an accurate story so I better be inspired to put the work in. I’m inspired by people who are trying to use their images or work for good. That’s a wide net but I think we all admire those individuals and they inspire us.

A woman holds a collection of prayer dolls she made in her house with the support of a local co-op.
A woman holds a collection of prayer dolls she made in her house with the support of a local co-op, Nahuala, Guatemala. Photograph by Michael Hanson.

Au: You’ve been able to get great access to the Amish community, a religion that, in your words, “shuns photography,” and capture some deeply personal and candid imagery. What was the inspiration behind shooting them, and what drives you to keep trying to get access?

MH: At first it was simply the challenge of getting images from inside a small community. After spending a few days with them, I realized how unique their lifestyle was, and it was smack right in the middle of our country. Again, the curiosity of a unique culture might be enough to drive me to get to know them more and document something that isn’t often accessible. I’ll still visit them and have developed some good relationships.

A young man harvests leaks at an organic field, Sequim, Washington. Photograph by Michael Hanson.
A young man harvests leaks at an organic field, Sequim, Washington. Photograph by Michael Hanson.

Au: You have a brother who is also a photographer. Do you find yourself competing with him or do you bounce ideas off each other?

MH: We still wrestle daily for assignments just like we did after I beat him in Tecmo Bowl in 1989-1993. We haven’t had too many clients that overlap. Occasionally, we do and are supportive of each other. We have different styles I think. I’m more documentary and he has a little more fine art in his work. We definitely bounce ideas off each other. And, we work together often on the video projects with our good friend Brett Schwager on ModocStories.com. Working together is a nice way to not compete.

A gaucho, a Chilean cowboy, on his horse in an open field as he rounds up his sheep, Patagonia, Chile. Photograph by Michael Hanson.
A gaucho, a Chilean cowboy, on his horse in an open field as he rounds up his sheep, Patagonia, Chile. Photograph by Michael Hanson.

Au: If you weren’t making pictures, what would you be doing?

MH: Well, damn, I would say playing in the big leagues, but I already went down that road and it was a dead end. Maybe some sort of research biology. I tend to like science-y work. My friend is a hydrologist, and I think that’d be cool. But probably just an A-list movie star on the side to be safe, like Eric Estrada or something. Ya know, gotta pay the bills.

Staying Creative with Woods Wheatcroft

For the past ten years, Woods Wheatcroft has been delivering unique images with a singular vision and heartfelt creativity to Aurora Photos. Woods’ work blends humor, sentiment, spirit, and spontaneity in a style that stands out from the pack. Recently Woods passed the 3000 image mark in the highly curated Aurora Collection — a testament to both his longevity and the quality of his photography. We took the occasion to ask Woods about his style and the methodology that brought him from 0 to 3000.

Click here to see a selection of the “Best Of” Woods Wheatcroft OR browse all of Woods’ 3000 images.

Aurora Photos: Your body of work is an interesting balance between candid found moments and situations that you create, and yet your style is consistent through and through. How do you maintain that consistent style when shooting with these different methods?

Woods Wheatcroft: The consistency of style and the blending of the methods is a result of trusting my eye and plaicng myself in situtations that ring true to me. For example, I stopped shooting sporting events because there is no reflective truth in the subject matter for me any longer… Candid moments are about being prepared and sometimes lucky and trusting that the moment that happens is front of me is the one intended for me to capture. The candid moments find me like they find anyone else. Being ready, having your camera with you and timing are all crucial ingredients. In the situations that I create, I work with close friends and willing creative people to create a controlled environment then allow it to come apart. As the controlled arena dissolves, there are inherently candid moments. Those are the ones I’m after.

[Au]: In addition to humor, there is a heartfelt sentimentality to much of your work. What other messages or meaning do you try to convey through your pictures?

WW: I like to generate an element of comfort in my pictures, trust if you will. I like the subject to be comfortable, open, free, trusting. I consider myself an affable person. Make people feel comfortable in front of the camera and that translates to how the photo, the moment, the image feels in the end. You can always spot discomfort and stiffness… I believe as photographers we can break that down. We have our tools. So when you ask about other messages and meaning in my photography words that come to mind include: lighthearted, openness, free spirited, fun and genuine.

Little boy, age 5 flying a paper airplane in a big wide open field.

[Au]: Can you talk a little bit about your process — when you are coming up with a concept for a set of images, how much of the shoot is scripted or really planned out for a given situation. How much improvisation happens in the course of shooting? Are you ever surprised by the results?

WW: I create a controlled creative space at first and then bust out from there. So it is scripted in some sense, in that i provide the scenarios, but really truly I am after the in between moments as it either comes together or breaks apart. Thee is always lots of improvisation. Tons. I’m after the surprise, so yes, I am always surprised by the results.

[Au]: Your photographic style is distinctive. I feel like when I’m looking through the Aurora archive, I can spot a Woods Wheatcroft photo almost immediately among other images. What advice would you have for other photographers on developing and nurturing their own style?

WW: Do your best to create the most honest reflection of how you see the world through how you live your life. Share this truth and intimacy. Many of my photos look very genuine…that’s because they are…and that’s because what i am doing or what someone very close to me is doing at that time is really what is happening!! And of course, the advice I was given a long time ago… Shoot, shoot, shoot, shoot. One of the only ways I see to hone your style is to practice and for photographers that means shooting. A lot. A style will eventually rise to the top of the pile.

A couple on a tandem bike.

[Au]: You did a great portrait project of people and their bikes. Do you have a favorite bike story?

WW: There’s no one favorite bike story other than the fact that the longer I worked on the bike project, the longer it took to get a portrait. I really started to get to know the people and it was an awesome feeling to dive in and befriend total strangers on their bikes and celebrate a mutual love of the freedom of two wheels.

[Au]: If you weren’t making pictures, what would you be doing?

WW: If I weren’t making pictures I would be making something else: food, art, shelter, friends, memories, and more experiences that take me down this precious road of life.

Click here to see a selection of the “Best Of” Woods Wheatcroft

Click here to browse all of Woods’ 3000 images

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To enter the drawing for the $50 Visa giftcard, either “like” the Aurora Photos page on Facebook by February 21st at 3pm, or if you already “like” the page, you can send an email to updates[at]auroraphotos.com with a message of “like” for Aurora. The drawing will take place Friday afternoon at 3pm.